Pan Jinlian: The Notorious Femme Fatale of Chinese Literature

24 Jul

While binge-watching Hong Kong movies during the coronavirus lockdown, I reached onto my shelf of Cathay releases and pulled out the two-part movie, THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1964), starring Grace Chang as a street singer-turned-student who is forced into marriage with a brutal warlord in 1920s Beijing. Early in the film, she is seen performing in a tavern and is called upon to sing a song about Pan Jinlian.

I thought the name sounded familiar, so I looked it up and realized she’s also known as Lotus Pan, aka Golden Lotus, and is a character in the classic Chinese text, “The Water Margin,” upon which countless Hong Kong movies have been based, including many that I’ve seen. Here’s how she’s described in the first paragraph of her Wikipedia page:

Pan Jinlian (Chinese: 潘金蓮; Wade–Giles: P’an Chin-lien) is a fictional character in the 17th-century Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), and a minor character in Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. She is an archetypal femme fatale and one of the most notorious villainesses of classical Chinese culture. She has also become the patron goddess of brothels and prostitutes.

Lotus Pan is the subject of four movies in my collection, all produced by Shaw Bros., only one of which I’d seen up to this point. That one is TIGER KILLER (1982), in which Wu Song, the heroic killer of a man-eating tiger on Jinyang Ridge and a constable in Yanggu, comes back from an assignment which took him out of town for several months only to find his older brother, Wu Dalang, dead, having been poisoned by the brother’s wife, Pan Jinlian, at the urging of her lover, Ximen Qing, and the meddling teahouse owner and part-time pimp next door, Madame Wang. Wu Song gets his revenge and is on his way to prison at the end of the movie.

The lyrics about Pan Jinlian that Grace Chang sings are surprisingly sympathetic towards a character I remembered as being cruel and hard-hearted to her husband, named in the subtitles of TIGER KILLER as “Wu the Elder” and sometimes taunted as “Wu the Elder the Shrimp,” a kindly man who sells wheatcakes on the street for a living but happens to be short in stature, homely and walks with a waddle. As it turns out in THE STORY OF THREE LOVES, the lyrics sung by Ms. Chang lamenting marriage to such a man foreshadow the marital catastrophe her own character would soon be facing.

I then re-watched TIGER KILLER and followed it with viewings of the three other films about Lotus Pan:




As you might judge by these titles, the focus of these films happens to be on Pan Jinlian and not her famous brother-in-law, who’s not even seen in THE GOLDEN LOTUS, only talked about.

Pan Jinlian (Wang Ping) behaves pretty harshly in TIGER KILLER and at one point even slaps Wu Dalang (Ku Feng) in front of Wu Song (Ti Lung), much to the latter’s horror. To be fair to Jinlian, once a maid in a rich home, she’d been forced to marry Wu Da after the master of the house forced himself on her and his wife caught them in the act and decided to punish the poor girl by marrying her off to “the worst man.” (This is seen in flashback.) Of course the beautiful Jinlian is bitter. When she finally meets her husband’s younger brother, who’d just gained fame by killing the tiger, she immediately falls for the handsome, muscular young hero and comes on so strong to him that he violently rejects her, outraged at the thought of cheating on his beloved older brother, who’d worked so hard to raise him.

For the record, the author of the novel describes Wu Da this way: “he was short and grotesque, and had no flair for merrymaking whatever.” A page later, Pan Jinlian’s inner thought upon meeting Wu Song reads like this: “If I could have a man like that I wouldn’t have lived in vain. With the one I’ve got I’m cursed for good! ‘Three Inches of Mulberry Bark’—three-tenths man and seven-tenths monster. What filthy luck!”

The emotional core of this film is the close relationship between Wu Song and the older brother who raised him from infancy, as seen in the opening sequences. After killing the tiger, depicted in the film, and appointed a constable of Yanggu, Wu Song is sent out of town on a months-long mission and when he returns he is shocked to learn of his brother’s death, supposedly from heart disease. When he investigates himself and questions the local coroner and Wu Da’s neighbors, he puts Pan Jinlian on “trial” and ferrets out the truth. We see in flashback how Jinlian is seduced by a local merchant, Ximen Qing (Liu Yung), who is rich, handsome and insatiable, and given a place for regular liaisons, all arranged by Madame Wang (Wang Lai). Eventually, they all plot to poison Wu Dalang and it is Jinlian herself who administers the poison, so it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her and her fate.

As played by Wang Ping, a beautiful contract actress at Shaw Bros. from 1969 to 1974 who returned to Shaw for this, her final film, Pan Jinlian is a woman of unfulfilled passions who clearly deserved a better life. She had her feet bound as a child and her tiny feet are an object of awe to the many male admirers who hang around the house, hoping for a peep. She was not only raped when she was a maid, but in her first meeting with Ximen Qing in the teahouse, he essentially forces himself on her, although she eventually submits and begins an adulterous relationship.

Earlier in the film, there’s a scene of her nude in a tub at home listening to the lovemaking going on in Madame Wang’s makeshift brothel next door and she’s clearly turned on, all while her husband is snoring nearby and her handsome brother-in-law, whom she’d just spied upon, is sleeping shirtless downstairs. Still, none of this justifies what she does to poor Wu Da.

The actress does nude scenes in the film, which surprised me, since I’d never seen her do a nude scene prior to this. With top Shaw Bros. actresses like her, they would usually have body doubles if the director wanted to insert nudity. She won Best Actress for this performance at the 1982 Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, but never made another movie afterwards. These shots are from an extra about the director on the TIGER KILLER DVD:

Kung fu star Ti Lung played Wu Song in three earlier Shaw films, THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972), THE WATER MARGIN (1972),  and ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973), all depicting events which take place later than the action in TIGER KILLER.

Ti Lung as Wu Song, 3rd from right, in THE WATER MARGIN (1972)

Ku Feng won the Best Supporting Actor award for TIGER KILLER at the 1982 Golden Horse Awards. He plays the short Wu Da by squatting and covering his legs with the garment he wears and then walking that way throughout the film, so we never see his feet or his legs. (In an interview contained in an extra on the DVD, Ku shows how it was done onstage in Chinese opera, by lowering himself and walking from a squatting position.) Ku Feng’s portrayal of Wu Da is the most sympathetic of the four portrayals I’ve seen. And it’s a far cry from the hard-fighting villain roles he usually played at Shaw Bros.

Interestingly, the actor is also seen in THE STORY OF THREE LOVES as the tavern keeper who calls upon Grace Chang to sing about Pan Jinlian. Chang’s lyrics even cite Wu Dalang and the derogatory nickname given to him,“three-inch nail,” in the lyrics. Little did they know that Ku would play that exact character 18 years later.

The action in TIGER KILLER closely matches that in “The Water Margin,” as found in Chapters 23-26 of the version of the book I own, published in two volumes as “Outlaws of the Marsh” in 1981 by Indiana University Press, with translation by Stanley Shapiro.

In “The Savant –  Li Han-Hsiang,” a fifteen-minute extra found on the Celestial R3 DVD edition of TIGER KILLER, Li is interviewed and the narrator tells us he wanted to present a “less biased” version of Pan Jinlian in this film. If you compare it with Li’s other versions, THE GOLDEN LOTUS and THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN (1994), both of which are softcore porn, one can argue that perhaps the character is indeed shown in a more favorable light here.

THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN (1964) offers the most sympathetic portrayal of Pan Jinlian of all the films I watched for this piece. Presented in Huangmei Opera form, with much of the dialogue sung by the characters, the film is largely told from Jinlian’s point-of view and the character is played by Diana Chang, a busy Shaw Bros. actress in the 1960s. It’s a short film (74 minutes) and leaves out a lot of background plot. For instance, it’s never explained what caused her to be married to Wu Da, other than a line in her final song: “I was a maid beforehand, I didn’t choose to marry him,” with no other details supplied.

She’s also less guilty of crimes here than in TIGER KILLER and the other films. She appears not to know that the herbal tea she’s giving her sick husband has had poison added to it by Madame Wang and Ximen. And when Wu Song confronts Jinlian over his brother’s death in the final sequence, she sings her lament while Wu Song sings his accusations back at her. In beautiful song, she declares her love for Wu Song, calling him “my destined love” and asking, “If I was not your sister-in-law, would you then show your affection?” She continues with, “My life was ruined by marrying the wrong man/There’s nothing except hatred from you/Although we couldn’t be a couple/I’d choose to die in your hands.” It’s a touching scene and it saddened me.

THE GOLDEN LOTUS (1974) starts out with part of the story from “The Water Margin,” including Pan Jinlian’s affair with Ximen Qing, and shows her poisoning her husband, Wu Da, but then she goes on to become one of Ximen Qing’s many wives. This extension of the story into an alternate destiny for the character was actually based on a later Chinese novel, notorious for its explicit sexual content, published in the 17th century and titled Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase). In this film version of the story, Wu Song is never seen, only spoken about. Neither Pan Jinlian nor Ximen Qing are killed by him in the film.

Curiously, Ximen Qing, played by Peter Yang Kwan, is the main character this time and ignores Jinlian, his newest wife, played by Hu Chin, for long stretches of the narrative. He has an affair with the wife of a rival whose ruin Ximen engineers so he can marry the wife himself. Her name is Ling’er, played by Tanny Tien Ni, who, after some delay, does indeed marry Ximen and suffers quite a bit of abuse at his hands, as do pretty much all the women in his circle. There’s a lot of sex, some nudity, but none by the lead actresses, and a bit of sadomasochism. It’s been described as a softcore porn parody of the Jinlian story, although the humor did not translate for me.

Regular Shaw Bros. character actress Wang Lai plays Madame Wang, who runs the teahouse, the same role she would later play in TIGER KILLER. She disappears from the narrative pretty early. Chiang Nan, another Shaw Bros. character actor, plays Wu Da by squatting like Ku Feng would do. In the most interesting bit of casting, the role of Yunghe, the fruit seller who becomes an ally of Wu Da and informs him about his wife’s affair with Ximen Qing, is played by none other than a young Jackie Chan, in a non-martial arts role. He’s a key character in all versions and the lead witness against Pan Jinlian in Wu Song’s makeshift trials. In this film, sadly, he incurs Ximen’s wrath early on and suffers tragically for it before any “trial” can occur.

THE GOLDEN LOTUS is not a particularly good movie, but it did give me the chance to see another take on the Pan Jinlian story and one that veers off in a potentially interesting direction not available to film versions of the original text, “The Water Margin.”

THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN (1994) was released by Shaw Bros. and directed by Li Han-Hsiang, but I believe it was produced independently  and not by Shaw Bros. Its shoddy, low-budget look makes it hard to believe it was directed by the same man who gave us all those beautiful Shaw Bros. color costume spectacles and Huangmei operas of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The film was given a Category III rating, the Hong Kong equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America’s X rating. It has lots of simulated sex and plenty of nudity by the lead actress, Wong Mei-Ching, who plays Pan JinLian. (She and all the other cast members are unfamiliar to me.)

This film seemed to me a mix of elements from The Water Margin and The Plum in the Golden Vase. Jinlian is seen in a flashback, played by a much younger actress, as a new maid working in a rich home who is raped by the master and then submits to him on a regular basis until she’s grown and played by Wong Mei-Ching and thrown out by the Lady of the House and forced to marry Wu Da. Interestingly, for the only time in any of the films, Jinlian actually has sex with Wu Da and then pushes him aside when he finishes too soon, not vigorous enough for her taste. Again, for the first time in any of the films, she has sex also with her brother-in-law, Wu Song, whom she pounces on while he’s asleep and gets him worked up while he’s still sleeping and when he half-wakes, he continues at it until he fully wakes and realizes who’s he with and freaks out in shame.

Jinlian has sex with three other men in the movie, including, of course, Ximen Qing, but only in flashback where we see him die from sex with her after taking too many aphrodisiacs. She takes a boy’s virginity early in the film, the nephew of Madame Wang, and later has a fling with the son-in-law of Ximen, a young man who clearly loves her. While the film is basically a tasteless, softcore exploitation film using Pan Jinlian’s story to fill the film with sex scenes with actors who were mostly inexperienced, it definitely made her a more strangely sympathetic character than in THE GOLDEN LOTUS and TIGER KILLER. She shares her passion–and sometimes her love–with a lot more men. (Granted, many men are inclined to find such a character sympathetic. Maybe this is what Li Han-Hsiang meant when he was aiming for a “less biased” portrayal. After all, he made lots of erotic films for Shaw back in the 1970s when such films were in vogue, so this film can be seen as part of that thread of his career.) In any event, when Wu Song comes back for the final reckoning, I was actually hoping he would spare her, since she hadn’t died in the similarly-themed 1974 version. She delivers a stirring lament about being raped by her master and how she’d fallen in love with Wu Song and wanted him as her man and gave herself to him with true feeling. I definitely felt bad when she suffered her inevitable fate as I did after the ending of the earlier version of THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN.

There are tons of other Hong Kong and Chinese films about the character, but these are the ones I have in my collection. I find the character fascinating and would like to see variations in the way she’s portrayed.

There was a Chinese feature made in 2016, a comedy-drama called I AM NOT PAN JINLIAN, that dealt with a contemporary married couple in China and their strategy to stage a fake divorce in order to remarry and have a second baby, only for the husband to betray his wife and accuse her of prostitution, hence the Pan Jinlian reference. Fang Bingbing plays the wife. By some peculiar logic, the film was distributed in English in the U.S. as I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY, a reference to a completely different literary character, which makes no sense to me. If your concern is that English-speaking audiences don’t know who Pan Jinlian is, then maybe your publicity campaign should undertake the task of informing them who Pan Jinlian was, so they wouldn’t have to make a far-reaching and confusing metaphor that would infuriate those of us who know who both Pan Jinlian and Madame Bovary are.

Interestingly, there was another Chinese movie made in 2016 that happened to be about Pan Jinlian and was called, coincidentally enough, I AM PAN JINLIAN. It’s on Amazon Prime, but not available in the U.S., although one can see the trailer for it.

For more information on Pan Jinlian:

For more information on Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase):

For more information on The Water Margin:

For more information on a lawsuit against I AM NOT PAN JINLIAN by the descendants of the Pan family:

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